Foreign Cities, Local Talent

Michael Onsando
27 November ,2018

“The European Union, or a body like the World Bank, should build and run cities in Africa in order to boost job creation and development on the continent, Germany’s Minister for Africa, Gunter Nooke, told the BBC in an interview in which he outlined his thinking on how to stem migration to Europe. 

This will mean African countries leasing their land to a foreign body to “allow free development for 50 years”, Mr Nooke said.”

Matters land are always sensitive. Being a finite resource and one whose use affects most of the people who have to live with the consequences. A large number of communities are only now coming into leases that were signed in the colonial times, with some having to wait another 90 plus years for leases to run out before they can challenge for pieces of land that were signed over (for whatever reasons) almost a hundred years ago. Earlier in his first term Mr Freedom was giving out title deeds at the coast and then again in his second term (were they fake? No one knows). Then there’s the 50,000 he is set to give out to Eastlands residents.

And this is even without touching the caricature that has been mentioning Ruto and land in the same sentence (ati plane za Ruto hu-arrive ju zikiland zitagrabiwa?)

So when we’re asked to put aside land for foreign cities I’m forced to ask – why?

“‘I just want you to be happy’. How does this speech act direct the narrative? To answer this question, we need to describe the conflict of the film, or the obstacle to the happy ending. The film could be described as being about the generational conflict within a migrant Indian Sikh family living in Hounslow, London. Jess the daughter is good at football. Her idea of happiness would be to bend it like Beckham, which requires that she bends the rules about what Indian girls should do. The generational conflict between parents and daughter is also represented as a conflict between the demands of cultures: as Jess says, ‘anyone can cook Alo Gobi but who can bend the ball like Beckham’. This contrast sets up ‘cooking Alo Gobi’ as common place and customary, against an alternative world of celebrity, individualism and talent.”

I’m often challenging our generation’s constructs of happiness, how we build these ideas and what forms our images of success and failure. A friend of mine quips often about how we were “raised for export” and I don’t think they are far from the truth. Our studies, or classes our efforts were all geared towards finding an opportunity – opportunity was often defined through leaving in one form or the other. And this search was amidst the class that could afford school and such pursuits. For most the desire to find happiness would come through finding another way to make it to greener pastures. These ideas become easily apparent when we look at a cross section of top selling African novels. In most of these books we see protagonists leave. It happens in Americanah, in We Need New Names, Behold the Dreamers, and Ghana Must Go – to mention a few contemporary examples.

This, of course, comes from much criticized “west is best” narratives that have not only plagued us for a while but have also been over analysed ad nauseum (decolonize your mind anyone?)

“A sense of irony befalls the non-European observer of this emerging crisis in Europe. That the descendants of persons whose great grandfathers literally carved nations to fuel their economies and provide unparalleled prosperity to minorities given dominion in those colonies, are now debating on what their heritage means moving forward. An acceptance that the tanning of the European visage is an unavertable course of history since colonialization or a fascist return to the nationalism and anti-Semitism that destroyed Europe in the first half of the 20th Century.”

The “but shouldn’t we deserve a stake in lands that we built?” calls into question the ethical issues around immigration, slavery, labour and conquest. Having been pulled across the seas to build cities, fight wars and serve households, what does it mean to say, now that the cities have been built and wars won, that the same people have no claim to the space? Issa tricks.

Perhaps it is with all this in mind that led Mr Paul Romer to argue that “foreign-run cities could be a model of efficient governance and offer a good quality of life, stopping people from migrating for economic reasons.” Because the problem must be that local cities are run by the state – and the Kenyan state is vastly incompetent (this last bit was supposed to be sarcastic, but I suppose it is also true). Still, in the age of Trump and Brexit it becomes increasingly apparent that the king has no clothes – not since we stopped fashioning them and dressing him hundreds of years ago.

Which is what makes me question the logic here. Of course building foreign (west inspired) cities seems to follow the same “west is best” logic. Of course it came following the path that “if they want Europe to come, maybe we should take Europe to them.” But there’s already a lot of evidence that the extractive capitalism that drives Western nations depletes natural resources faster than they can be replenished. And while we might already be on our way there all on our own, one wonders what it means to allow the path to development to follow its own natural winding – perhaps allowing us to create different sustainable models and allows of livability on our own (do we need to exploit our naturally giving environment as hard as they did for example?).

But what happens in the meantime?

I am not sure, but not foreign cities which will “operate under a set of laws separate from the host country” which basically makes them little protectorates. Nor is selling Nairobi to Chinese billionaires an idea (so happy this was thrown out faster than it came in). Perhaps the answer lies in restating the end goal. Rather than seeing New York –like or Amsterdam – like as the result, we understand that the strongest societies work for their citizens, encourage trade and create systems that are not imposed upon but drawn from the societies themselves. And, in realizing this, understanding that the real value lies in the people and finding ways to create dreams for people to thrive here – here dreams.

(Libraries might be a good place to start)

Trusting that Kenya will Kenya

Michael Onsando
20 November ,2018

“Fresh produce growers are expected to be the main beneficiaries of trade deals that President Uhuru Kenyatta will sign on his visit to China next month.” 

Farmers set to reap big from China trade deals

 “Juzi mheshimiwa rais ameenda China amefungua soko, sasa tukona mkatgaba maalum ya soko ya kuuza mali yetu China. Na sisis watu wa sehemu hii, itabidi tumejipanga vizuri. Na wale watu wa China hawanunui mahindi, hawanunui miwa. Wanataka kahawa, wanataka chai, wanataka nyama, wanataka mambo hio”

 William Ruto

Perhaps one of the consequences of devolution is regional leaders are being held accountable more rigorously. Having been so publicly stated that the resources and power are in the hands of the county government the “big man has refused” excuse has been taken away. Of course devolution hasn’t worked like a charm as expected (ask the folks in the health sector, they’ll tall you a thing or two).

Especially in this second term presidency with campaigning haven started literally the year after elections and Okiya Omtatah calling for the polls to be brought forward by one year, most leaders are under pressure to show how they are best positioned for the reshuffling of the cards come 2021. In the absence of an incumbent for the uthamaki train, Jubilee might have Ruto as a front runner (or he’ll go start his own thing). Whatever happens, the political playing field is more open than it has been in a while – and this has every politician fighting for dominance, a swipe at the throne.

Maybe this is why Mwangi wa Iria turned to put the squeeze on Nairobi for 25% of the revenue from selling water from Ndakiani dam. Under pressure to, at least, show residents of his county that he is pursuing resources for their protection, this was one of the great ideas that came to him.

“The stranger here is not somebody we do not recognize but somebody that we recognize as a stranger, somebody we know as not knowing rather than somebody we do not know.” 

Who knows, knowing strangers and strangeness Sara Ahmed

“In essence then, belonging to a nation is simply the sense of connectedness with people one does not know and is unlikely ever to meet. The intellectual problem of the study of nationalism is understanding why and how people develop or fail to develop this belonging. Of note, the fact that this connectedness is not necessarily unproblematic.” 

Kenya is a cruel marriage, it’s time we talked divorce David Ndii

I’m not sure whether nationalism is the answer (because reasons ) but I am fascinated by identities, how they are created and what they mean for the things that we hold onto. And, in holding onto this Kenya, how bringing together of the 44 cultures and identities through a cohesive process. Especially since the borders didn’t naturally evolve through bargaining, conquest, allegiances and disagreements, we find ourselves in a bind fueled by the question “where do my interests lie? To whom does my self belong?”

Devolution, increasingly insists that the answer to this question is “look up, look around.” Which creates the pressure on local leaders to ensure that the county can squeeze the next county for money on water.

But what are the elements of identity other than the things we choose to agree to see as true, as common between us? And, in reaching for the things that are true – what do we find?

“Ni nchi ya kitu kidogo, nchi ya watu wadogo” 

Nchi ya kitu kidogo, Eric Wainaina

So maybe a more interesting question begins with the assumption that there are no things that exist to hold us together. Rather looking at the truth and asking, what “Kenyanisms” have we accepted as who we are? And how do these Kenyanisms affect how we interact with the things we hear, the things we understand? 

“Nandi Hills MP, Alfred Keter, and his Chereng’ani counterpart, Joshua Kutuny, alleged Ruto was advising farmers to abandon maize farming and start growing avocado and other crops because he wanted to monopolise the local maize market.”

Rebel Jubilee MPs claim Ruto is growing 500,000 acres of maize in Congo, Tuko news

It’s difficult to talk about trust when it comes to the political circus. Who does one trust, how does one trust? But increasingly what I’ve been wondering is how does the lack of trust stifle efforts? And what must be done to fix it?

This is one reason I’m very interested in this return to Michuki rules and the process currently ongoing on the streets. Because currently we trust the government to shake us up for money to pocket. We trust all the cops to be bribed for freedom. We trust that when the state moves to serve personal interests, rather than the common good.

Devolution creates a “common” and an “other.” So when I hear Ruto asking rift farmers to invest in different plants for export to a market in China I desperately want to hear a leader who is looking for opportunities for their people. But then I am taken back by how quickly and easily I believe a story (with no evidence) about a farm somewhere in the Congo. And, in that moment, I can’t help but wonder – how do we create systems we can trust? How is trust cultivated? And, in its absence, how can we build towards a together?

And we continue to Kenya

Michael Onsando
6 November ,2018

“In this room I was born. And I knew I was in the wrong place”

Spaces, Arkaye Kierulf

 It hit me yesterday that I have been, for a long time, uncomfortable with my identity as a Kikuyu man and what comes with it. Because that identity has been translated to me as an abuser, as competition, not just by other Kikuyu, but by everything.

Owaaah 

It’s impossible to dismiss the value of identity in creating cohesion in a space. The words that are used as markers of identity carry perspectives with them that have been shaped over history. To say I am male, black, kisii-suba, is also to say that my body, my knowledge has travelled through these traumas. That the stories that I am likely to tell you are coloured by the experiences of a runaway brother and a journey from Misri. That my perspectives are informed by my position and expectations made of me (and bodies like mine) over the years.

The modern society is inherently multicultural. Whether this is has been achieved by an influx of immigrants looking for better opportunities, or immigrants looking to “fix the world,” most spaces are now a blend of identities – tribal and national. Our perspectives towards immigrants changes wherever you go (bodies are remembered by societies). But, at the end of it all, whether you are in the most remote village or the developed city, you are likely to find those who “are not from” or are considered “foreign” and those who are “local.”

“I, against my brothers. I and my brothers against my cousins. I and my brothers and my cousins against the world.”

Arab Proverb

 I’d like to talk a bit about what it means to be “local”

How the “local” relates to the “foreign” depends on which type of foreign it is. To be local in Kenya is to understand the foreigns around you and how to relate to them. It’s to know to smile “Jambo” at the Caucasians and to keep the Asians at a suspicious distance. It’s to know that “we are one Kenya” but also that it is “our turn to eat.” It is to know to keep your eye on the ever-changing “we” and how that shifts in relation to your “I”

To be local is to be aware of the number of locals that exist, those that have been erased, those that are allowed to occupy space – and how much space is allocated to each. It is to know that, while Kenya has 44 ethnicities, only 3 or four of them matter. It is “kuomba serekali itusaidie” while greasing palms to get your way.

It is to be expected to understand the state of affairs that is “Kenyanness.” To not kick up a fuss, not cause a scene, not fight too much. To be comfortable in knowing, this is Kenya – and this is how things are. It is to see the collective hunger, desperacy and grappling for resources as what it is – a 50 something year old democracy trying to heal and bring together 40 plus ethnicities while playing catch up in a globalized capitalist world.

The problem with multiculturalism is that the idea that “no culture be held superior” begs the question “off which culture do we create our law?” At Kenya’s inception, the latent assumption was white culture was superior, we adapted this assumption into our law system. To date we continue to ask ourselves what kind of systems would exist if we had drawn up the assumptions for ourselves? We see these questions rise to the surface when it comes to marriage (a church wedding and a traditional wedding because all the gods must be pleased). Or with the Community Land Act (is land ownership an individual or collective issue?). Or institutionalized in our police system.

As such, to be local is to know which when and how the law actually applies.

You know that

you carry their history.

But you also know

you don’t carry their scars.

And that, you hope,

will make all the difference.

Burns

Given the number of cultures we’re trying to amalgamate into a whole – would a thing such as a “Kenyan culture” exist? How would it apply? (A question that actually stalled the creating of a “national dress”)

Perhaps this is why Owaah’s tweet stuck with me.

We are retold stories of how “we” are the perpetrators of a violence and we reject them. We refuse to see ourselves in these stories because we cannot recognise the version of ourselves that is shown in them. We reject these stories because they do not carry our truths, because they erase what we know about ourselves, what we have been taught to aspire towards. And when we place our narratives against these stories they don’t add up.

And so we try to find the words to grasp at this dissonance. Between living in a space that is yet to be fully ideologically formed and demanding for the right to claim space. Between trying to understand the hunger and battle the corruption. Between trying to understand the betrayals and pursue justice. This never ending dance between looking for ourselves in the past and disentangling the present to create liveable futures.

And The Drums

The Drums guide our feet

In this backwards-forwards dance

This forwards-backwards dance

This Husago Dance

This Misego Dance

The Dance into a Future

That ends in the Past.

Husago, Kofi Anyidoho

Why private prisons are not the answer

Michael Onsando
23 October ,2018

“It establishes the Kenya Prisons Enterprise Corporation, a State Corporation, which is mandated to expand the scope of the prisons work programs with the aim of unlocking the revenue potential of the prisons industry and ultimately turn it into a reformative and financially self-sustaining entity.” 

You don’t have to be a genius to figure out that the country is really struggling with its finances. Between the Uhuru Chinyatta debt memes (apparently the post Uhuru period will be Post Ma-Loan) and the increased taxes on everything, the states flailing financial state has had far reaching effects that everyone has felt in someway or the other.

So when Mr. Freedom decided to sign the Kenya Prisons Enterprise Corporation Order Of 2018 one can almost see where his pressure is coming from. Having announced his Big four agenda for his second term (the legacy run), private prisons kill two birds with one stone. They can count as job creation, plus the increased supply of (almost free) labour for can help in the steps towards industrialization.

“Many of us have had the police arrest us at spots on the road they have deliberately set up to shake us up for bribes. We have been arrested for merely being out at night. We have had the police accept bribes of KES 500 – 1000 from matatu drivers who have no business being on the roads, with no regard for the 14 – 48 people who may be in the matatu. They have allowed sexual harassers and assaulters to get away scot free even when they could have done something. The police have also been known to mete out brutality against those they believe are lesser than; those whose pain they think they can get away with causing; whose lives they consider disposable.” 

Police Brutality in Kenya

It’s difficult to imagine that private prison systems will work better here than in most places, especially given our affinity for corruption (haki ya mungu – itaisha). And it has been proven that private prisons increase the likelihood of incarceration and of higher sentences for pettier offences. And we know (because we know) that the burden of this need will fall on the marginalized in the society. We know that these extra arrests will come for reasons such as looking at a building suspiciously with intent to litter.

“If private prisons make their profit from criminal society, its goes against business sense to reduce criminality.”

The Problem with Privatising Prisons

The argument against private prisons is not a new one, creating a profit incentive for prisoners creates a demand for this labour and demands must be met. According to most news sources the Kenya Prisons Enterprise Corporation will be wholly state owned – maybe that means that they will be as deliberately bad at their job as most state offices but betting on inefficiency seems like a losing struggle. Especially when it comes to managing 86 prison farms with over 18000 acres of land.

Before the establishment of this corporation the Kenya Prisons Farms Fund and the Kenya Prison Enterprise fund handled the production and sale processes. According to a press release from the PSCU

“The two funds will be merged to ensure the new Corporations operated under a typical business model purposely to spur economic growth in the Prisons Department”

So state corporation or not profit is emphasized. And any good company that needs profit must find labour – this cannot be said enough. The creation of private prisons creates a need for prisoners.

Even as we wonder how we’re going to pay off the close to one trillion shillings that we owe the Chinese we must ask ourselves – just how much money will private prisons make/save the state, at what cost and is it really worth it? Then again, that might be asking for good ideas and, as we’ve seen, all we can really get from this government is tough talk.

Protecting our Labour

Michael Onsando
16 October ,2018

At the end of the day a country is build on the backs of labour. Policy and governance are tools towards the creation of a labour enabling environment from which the people can find a way to maximize the fruit of their labour. In this way, the organisation of labour cannot be divorced from organized politics or from the general discussion about creating frameworks within which citizens can grow.

“As I was contemplating to quit, my colleagues insisted and persisted that I must have another five year term, all positions I hold both locally and internationally I have never contested these positions,” he (Atwoli) said. 

He thanked the trade unions for support throughout the three year terms he has been secretary general.” 

  • Atwoli re-elected COTU Secretary General for fourth term.

Let’s not even talk about the, soon to be, 20 years that Francis Atwoli has been the Secretary general of COTU (a tenure that long is definitely a sign of innovation in a field). The mechanics around the relationship between labour and capital have changed with the world. So much so that the importance of trade unions in a modern developing world is debatable. According to McKeena & Beech (2002) as quoted here:

“…the tradition of employee representation through trade unions and collective bargaining as the focus of engagement between the management and unions is being replaced by new relationships in the workplace, but the replacement is not a single type. It is made up of a number of different trends. In some cases the traditional model is retained, in others increased individualism, and yet in other cases a partnership approach is adopted in which unions take some of the concerns of the organisation and work with management in order to maintain the profitability and longevity of the firm.” 

Factors Affecting Performance of Trade Unions in Kenya

Closer to home trade unions are largely characterized by public politicized strikes and broken CBAs. As to their internal affairs, we know they are whispered as spaces used to leverage power and get mtu wetu ahead. And, given our unemployment rate of 11.5% and poverty rate of 42% it’s difficult to organize trade when there will consistently be labour willing to replace the people who are disgruntled. This is not just a notion in the air. It happened to nurses, doctors and teachers.

Capital argues that labour sets the standards too high for business profitability. Life argues that the current payscale does not match rising inflation and the general cost of living in the country (can anyone explain how fuel is 115 bob and Kersone is 108? I have refused to understand). Somewhere amidst this is the reality that Kenya, as a geographical space, is under industrialized. These are not new arguments, we grieve pan paper mills, we grieve the cotton industry and so forth.

Still we see that labour in the country is undercompensated and the working class continue to grasp at straws – ama hatuchukui tala kulipa mshwari? And that’s if you’re lucky enough to have access to that level of (extremely expensive) credit. So even as we hear that there are more modern ways for labour to bargain with capital the question remains – are they effective?

And labour remains the key to industry.

And the key to labour will always be care.

It’s hard to care enough about the outcome without vested interest – this might be part of the problem. I’ve been wondering about creating hope, mutual vested interest in this space called Kenya. A space that is so fractured along the lines of identity that political commenters are “talking divorce” and I guess pwani ni Kenya now given Joho’s position in the larger political chessboard.

The answer might lie in labour, something that cannot be taken away from a people. The work. Beyond just trade unions it’s along organized lines of labour that we see the most solidarity. An electoral vote happens every five years, but a boda guy will take a punch for another boda guy any other day. Artists will band together to take on Ezekiel Mutua whenever necessary.

“ “Poverty is a matter of choice. As Africa, we have chosen to be poor and complain over anything and everything, from colonialists to poor policies. Yet we are doing nothing to change this mindset,” Atwoli said.” 

Atwoli urges Kenyans not to seek jobs abroad

I agree with his larger point in the article – we really shouldn’t be looking for jobs elsewhere if the goal is to create livability here (and thus making the path to livability easy for those around us). I even see why, as the head of labour, he needs to preach the roll up your sleeves and work gospel. There are many who need this kind of talk to feel powerful, to have their excuses “taken away.” Coming from him this is to be seen as a show of strength, unbreakability – but not of care.

It’s care that we need to cultivate.

“Curriculum design implies choices and ideological orientations that may not always be explicit. It is about sorting out between values and coming to a compromise about what knowledge is deemed valuable enough to be passed on at a national level. Every part of the educational experience – what subjects are taught, the content of lessons, how students are examined, etc – is a site where power relations are at play.” 

The blindspots of a STEM focused education reform

 

“The new curriculum has been touted as the ultimate remedy to limitations identified in the 8-4-4 system because it is entirely skills-based (…) Experts are of the view that it will enable learners to develop beyond academics and also focus on how best they can use their specific talents to make a living.”

New 2-6-3-3-3 curriculum: How different is it from the 8-4-4 system?

Care is a product of choice. Power is the ability to choose.

This is why I have hope in the new education system. It seems, in a way 8-4-4 was not, designed to cultivate care for labour. With choices opened up from earlier on the future generation seems more set to make choices that they own and thus have vested interests in, perform labour they care for which might finally help unlock industry – or at least begin to recognize and take back the power of trade unions and demand more of those who protect the only thing we can really call our own – our work.

Creating hope (or, when rage becomes the norm)

Michael Onsando
9 October ,2018

“You will begin to forgive when you understand the many ways in which the world has killed those who try to survive it.”

“We’re not evolving emotional filters fast enough to deal with the efficiency with which bad news now reaches us”

It’s easy to lose hope these days. Especially when one gets themselves sucked into the cycle of rage and the restorative labour necessary in nation building. When looking around yields nothing but stories of stolen money, unnecessary projects, rises in taxes and a debt problem we are yet to solve it hard to start calculating positive outcomes.

It becomes even easier when you begin to notice that the people who are supposed to be fixing those problems are often the major cause of the problems, and those who stand up to “fight the good fight” turn on the people in the end.

Eventually, we get tired of throwing ourselves at the windmill over and over again. And the pain that we carry from the numerous battles we fight carry on into the next one. In this state of rage fatigue, it’s easy to lose sight of the cause and begin to lash out.

“Part of the privilege of a privileged identity is being insulated from things that people who don’t have it often face. A shadow of that is immediately checking their tone when they express their truth.”

When dealing with intersectionality it is important that we are able to organize bodies into groups. The way a body is perceived will often define the experience the body is allowed to have. To go against this experience is to have your body act in ways that people do not expect from bodies like yours. To have a large intimidating body is to work extra towards not being seen as aggressive. To have a smaller, frailer frame is to work extra towards being seen as capable of aggression, and so forth.

I use the word body very particularly because it speaks to something that one largely has no jurisdiction over. Modern science allows us to change our bodies to fit our perception of ourselves rather than the ever moving shadows of how other’s perceive us. This is particularly helpful for those who are most affected by this discrepancy in identity but these operations are still far outside the financial and imaginative reach of the general population.

And bodies speak in many ways, most of which are involuntary – or at least impulsive. They fold, they turn away, they swell, they shiver and so forth and so forth. Tongues fail to form letters properly, shaping language that points to a history. A history that tells a story of class, of tribe, of upbringing. Faces show echoes of who your people are.

“Babiness signals a beingness in place. To call oneself a babi in Kenya is to declare one untouchable. To ask, “Mta’do?”  Without the arrogance of Kenya’s political class. Without the violence of a country at war with its own. It is to say, “I am telling you this, and I am aware of the risk I take with an articulation of this kind but I am not afraid. Because I have no reason to be afraid”. It is to say, in many ways that even within one’s vulnerability (because there’s an ever-present vulnerability embodied in queerness) one’s body is not available to the violence it attracts if unbabied. Also, it is to say, “You might not like what I am telling you about me right now but you are going to have to listen to me because babiness is listened to in this country”.

In this way there is no running away. What this means is that, no matter how much you do, your body will be recognized as your body. And whatever memory your body evokes will be how you are seen, which will affect how people relate to you, depending on their own relationship with that memory. And how you relate to that perception will create the image that people have of you (perhaps this is what we mean when we say step into your power – navigate your perception with knowledge of that landscape).

Those who do the work of remembering take notes on bodies. These bodies carry violence. These bodies carry deceit. These have a tendency towards shame. These ones are not to be trusted.

It hit me yesterday that I have been, for a long time, uncomfortable with my identity as a Kikuyu man and what comes with it. Because that identity has been translated to me as an abuser, as competition, not just by other Kikuyu, but by everything.

The rise of identity politics brings more significance to this. In order for identity to exist there must be a body to be identified. Bodies are the markers of identity. And of course we remember. And, in a time like this, it’s easy to lose hope. For the bodies themselves to become the enemy, to lash out in the name of calling out. To forget the collective labour of undoing, unearthing and pursuing to better each other and focus on the destruction.

But the truth is indifferent.

The truth just is. It bears no ill will, it carries nothing with it other than itself. And in knowing this, we know what to listen to when trying to hear the truth and know how much of ourselves is between what we are trying to say and what the truth is.

“We need stories of belonging that move us towards each other, not from each other; ways of being human that open up the possibilities of being alive together; ways of navigating our differences that deepen our curiosity, that deepen our friendship, that deepen our capacity to disagree, that deepen the argument of being alive. This is what we need. This is what will save us. This is the work of peace. This is the work of imagination.”

Perhaps in seeing how far away we are from each other, buried by whatever blindnesses surviving in our bodies lived experience imposed upon us, we can begin the work of moving together, towards unburdening, untangling and rebuilding the systems of perception that oppress us all, creating new truths and, possibly, hope.

 

Falling Stories

Michael Onsando
25 September ,2018

You cannot see it

but the jacaranda trees are flowering

each blossom an insurgent

against the sameness of life

Soon the streets will be a revolution of colour

suffused with a tangible tenderness

Fight, grandma, fight

It’s worth the struggle

to witness next season’s lilac uprising.

 

  • Phyllis Muthoni

 

It’s September and the Jacarandas are in bloom. On twitter, #JacarandaPropaganda has already started making its way to the top trends. We own this tree and we hold it close as a testament to the beauty of the country.

Native to Brazil and Argentina, jacaranda is the name of a genus with about 50 different species of trees with a wide range of flower colours. The name Jacaranda comes from a Native American Tupi word “yacarana” or “yacaranda” which which the Portuguese spell with a J. On twitter #JacarandaPropaganda has already started

But what do you see when you look at the Jacaranda?

The spread of the Jacaranda is largely attributed to Allan Cunningham who came across the tree on one of his many travels before reporting its existence to the queen. They were first imported to Zimbabwe(then Rhodesia of sorts) by British settlers after which they found their way around the continent.

Despite pulling in a significant amount of Japanese tourism, there was still a long debate about cutting a number of them down in 2012. The reason was that their root system was too invasive and their high water intake prevented anything else from growing.

You know that

you carry their history.

But you also know

you don’t carry their scars.

And that, you hope,

will make all the difference.

When I was a child (Lol at was – I am still children) I loved trying to catch the Jacaranda flowers before they hit the ground. There was one particular tree where we used to go to church. I spend a lot of time under this tree, waiting for a gust of wind to catch the branches and release a few more flowers, which we would use to wish.

Our wishes never came true, but that didn’t stop us.

“And this common ground is necessary. The political winds of the West are calling them to consolidation of their political power – towards nationalism. From a purely timing perspective, this would not be the time to destroy the marriage that is Kenya. To do that would be to break the power (that we have only just began to understand we have) as a country and leave smaller vulnerable ethnonation. To allow ourselves to be led by and towards our differences it to play right into the idea of divide and conquer. 

So instead we find ourselves with decolonisation. Slowly analyzing and comparing pasts, asking for permission – negotiating for ways to keep our identities alive. Does this one work for you? How about you? What if we keep this one, and let that other one go?”

I’ve written here about institutional memory before and how it works in relation to the philosophies that govern the not-so-august house that is the Kenyan parliament. Especially when held in relation to the labour of decolonisation. The work of decolonisation calls for us to go into ourselves work towards erasing internalised racism, sexism et al.

I remember the Jacaranda as the tree that filled my childhood with mystery. I remember Moi’s era as a time with free milk. Those with longer memories remember when Moi over-borrowed in the 80s and the IMF restrictions that followed. Those with even longer memories speak of a Kenya that worked on some level. They speak with nostalgia about working hospitals and not needing to lock their door in the evening. They speak of an education system that all but guaranteed labour and a time when the country’s zeitgeist was full of hope. But they also remember the struggle, the death and pain that came with the strife for this freedom. Memory is vastly unreliable as a way to record history – but it was the only tool available to those not allowed to record their own.

And through this lens – what do we remember?

“It is not forgetfulness, but the state in which it is deemed necessary or at least desirable to go through a process of forgetting. 

The kind of forgetting in forgetingness is not a mere slipping away from memory, but rather a process of extraction from being. 

Through this process, issues and people are washed clean of their identity and significance.”

Forgettingness

I ask because the history I studied reads like a series of tragedies and defeats. Of suppressions and executions, of disappearances and whispers. We move from independence to a coup, from a coup to the struggle for multipartyism to the silencing of Moi to the corruption and scandals that followed.

Where are the stories of my grandfather standing under a jacaranda tree, wishing on a blossom for the love of his life to look his way? Where are the stories of the young and hopeful and how they managed to make their way to establishing a life for themselves and their families? Even as we do the work of looking at our history and taking apart its invasive roots, where are the falling flowers that the child in me might catch one and wish for a better future?

Odds on Stocks

Michael Onsando
11 September ,2018

“We are doing these things because, if you look at the budget for this year, revenue- in the best scenario is going to be about 1.3 trillion shillings… on your budget, the first claim to budget interest – 400 billion, salaries close to 500 billion, pensions 100 billion – that’s a trillion. You now have three hundred left, do you transfer to counties or do you finance the current budget for the national government – that is your dilemma.” 

“Perhaps it would be prudent for us to look at our country’s problem as an economic one rather than a political one.” I don’t know where I heard or saw this quote, but it was somewhere over the last fortnight – and it stayed with me. Maybe it’s because somewhere after that we have the 30% fuel tax being implemented, one that will see the price of, well, everything go up.

“On paper, the VAT Act 2013 will increase revenue for the government, but in reality, it will wildly distort the market. The cost of running a Kenyan household has increased exponentially – food, water, electricity and cooking fuel have become very expensive. Since the cost of building materials has also increased, shelter has become costly. Transport is set to become more expensive with the introduction of VAT on passenger vehicles with a capacity of over 25 persons, as well as the impending increase in fuel prices. Since the cost of doing business has increased, unemployment could be a possible consequence as businesses reduce members of staff to cut costs. How will people afford to live with such high prices if they are unemployed?” 

– Brenda Wambui, Death by VAT

There are many metaphors that demonstrate the absurdity of a nation trying to tax its way out of poverty – I will neither bore, nor confuse you with new ones. It becomes particularly stifling to new businesses (already struggling to raise revenue to run whatever business type processes they need to). This means that fewer people are employed – and there’s less money circulating in the economy (wasn’t this what the taxes were supposed to do?)

Somehow, according to PwC, casino betting alone is set to bring in about KES 2.5 billion in this same environment. Sportpesa have annual sponsorships of up to 15 billion shillings, and this is not even counting the several other betting platforms that have come up over the last couple of years. Estimates have the gambling industry in the country at being worth about KES 400 billion.

Walk by any pub over the weekend and you will hear heated debates about odds, probabilities and possible outcomes. Most of the sports betters I spoke to have two or three apps, betting in different combinations to ensure a favourable outcome on the other side of a game – no matter who wins.

“On average each session lasts for about five minutes which translates to an estimated Sh50-200 daily and about Sh5, 000 monthly spend on mobile data alone. “Most gamers will access varied betting platforms at least once a day, to either place a bet or track ongoing matches. This in itself, and not at all associated to any winnings, is a deterrent to many regular gamers,” Ms Gikonyo says.” 

On one hand, gambling is a problem. It often comes paired with substance abuse and mental health issues. A geopoll study showed that Kenyan Youth are betting with higher frequency than any of their African counterparts.

What I see here is a mass of Kenyans, willing to take calculated risks with their disposable (or, non disposable but riskable none the same) income, with the chance of the money generating more – usually over a short period of time.

Perhaps we should look for a way to channel that money to solve our economic problems.

The NYSE trades about 1.46 billion shares every day, and is home to some 2,800 companies ranging from blue chips to new high growth companies. The NSE, on the other hand, is home to 65 companies – and the data on how many shares are traded daily is scarce.

So to say that we have an active bourse might be a slight overstatement.

What’s more, availability of shares has been a long-standing problem on the exchange, with some people complaining about being unable to get the shares they want for days on end. And, in the absence of a market-making player, a large number of sales end up not being actualized.

But this won’t stop us from dreaming. Moving this capital (what was it? 400 bil? We can just move 200) to the exchange would mean companies have a little more wiggle room. Already there are people analyzing the difficulty in buying and trading in the country and coming up with simpler tools in a bid to woo the market. The NSE app automatically connects to your CDS account for easy trading. Abacus doesn’t have in app trading, but is great for staying informed of what is happening, and what might affect your portfolio.

This is not to say that we don’t have a ways to go before real time active trading is a thing (and let’s not even begin to talk about investor security and trust issues that need to be overcome. Rather – it is to look at fuel prices sitting at KES 127 and thinking – perhaps it’s time we tried something different.

The Devil is in the Data

Michael Onsando
4 September ,2018

by Robert Munuku

Africa has been the hub of a rich cocktail of resources from potent extractive mineral deposits to diverse tourism-attracting flora and fauna coupled with tropical climate that supports agriculture – the backbone of many Sub-Saharan African economies. Many of these economies are making major gains in growth bolstered by substantial development in information technology; this has enabled the breakdown of geographical boundaries offering more opportunities to the market mobility of goods and services.

Given how fast information is moving in the 21st century, over-reliance and dependence on commodities has shifted to focus on service provision and data dissemination.  Lerato Mbele, a business journalist,  puts this best when he says, “What Africa lacks in infrastructure it compensates for in character. There are natural endowments of minerals; fertile agricultural lands; virgin industrial zones; plus a proud and resilient body-politic”

It is also worth noting that ICT has been used in most sectors of the economy invariably as a vehicle to spur business growth (e.g. mobile money transfer stage as a parallel and alternative to traditional banking).

M-Pesa, for example, has enabled many Kenyans to transfer money without the need of having bank accounts and the lengthy technical procedures that come with banking.   Mobile money was adopted by the other 3 telephony companies following stiff competition that the innovation posed from Safaricom which still enjoys the lion’s share of market capital.  Airtel has its equivalent mobile money transfer service named Zap; Orange Telkom has Iko Pesa; and, Yu Essar has Yu-Cas. This has further widened the landscape offering Kenyans more access to the facility that is now indispensable in everyday transactions like school fees payment, payment of utility bills, business transactions among other forms of financial transactions.

And that it is such a wide variety of transactions is widens the net from which data can be captured. As a result of this, data as a virtual commodity is growing fast. The Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK) reported that 98% of the internet market share is through mobile platforms. This means that a majority of us access the internet through their mobile phones – a service one can acquire by attaining a basic feature phone that now retails as cheaply as Ksh2,000.  The growth momentum was well put in a joint article by both heads of Airtel and Safaricom, “[1]In the last quarter of 2010, something interesting happened in Africa; the number of mobile connections on the continent overtook those in Europe.  There has been a ten-fold increase in coverage over the past 10 years.”

SMEs (Small to Medium-sized Enterprises) and other small business persons are now exploiting the fast growing ICT sector to market and sell their products and services across geographical boundaries.

 

Obstacles to growth

The major obstacle to economic progress has always been poor leadership which usually breeds corruption and hence incompetence that eventually leads to poverty (& rampant insecurity). In many countries major steps have been made towards the democratization process but a lot still needs to be done to delink leadership from patronage and big governments. This would then see the rise of strong state-run institutions and subsequent service delivery.

The private sector which forms a bulk of GDP must also be empowered and given enough room to maneuver. “Public-private partnerships between governments and ICT players are another way that the telecoms industry can positively contribute to development in Africa. It is crucial for governments to create an enabling environment through enlightened regulatory regimes and supporting infrastructure.”

Another obstacle is not that the Africas lacks the requisite resources, but rather the necessary ‘bargaining power’ that is a demand of such markets. Major steps have been made on this with many attempts at regional integration through trading blocs of old, i.e. ECOWAS, EAC, COMESA, etc, along with economic legislation such as AGOA (Africa Growth & Opportunity Act instituted in the year 2000).  These trading blocs facilitate easier access to global market at the same time improving quality standards of products marketed abroad.   This notwithstanding many economists feel that the blocs can do better in their mandates.

Mobile money as a financial alternative to corporate banking is but a taste of the pliable nature of data or if you will, information velocity, that have now placed us on a critical geopolitical plane.

In the words of Aly-Khan Satchu, “The 21st century is not about the money, it’s about your brain-power.”

[1] Africa Forbes (Mock-up Issue 2011), ABN Publishing (Pty) Ltd South Africa

 

Robert Mũnũku is a visual artist, writer & filmmaker based in Nairobi. Mũnũku is also the founder of Mau Mau Collective which is an organization that seeks to create a strong network of independent visual artists, filmmakers & performing artists on the continent. Follow him on Twitter @robertmunuku

Changing Landscapes

Michael Onsando
28 August ,2018

“The thing about saying something is happening is that change comes to everyone in its own time. And so to say that something is happening is to forget the millions that it is yet to happen to. It is to forget those who will die before that thing happens. And if the thing that was supposed to happen doesn’t happen in time for you – then did it happen?” 

It’s been particularly well known that, while Kenyan elections run on tribal math, this has always just been a narrative used by people in power to maintain their status as the ruling class. Still, tribe has been to blame for most of the problems facing Kenya’s political landscape. So much so has tribe been at the root of our problems that “tribless Kenya” is a movement hoping that, in organizing across tribal lines we can work towards a united country.

It makes sense that we can be herded around using tribe. The concept plays on our base ideas of “us” “ours” and a “sense of belonging.” (and participates in creating “them,” “theirs” and a “sense of unbelonging.”)

“In this narrative, corruption becomes a machine for the redirection of resources back to the people (idealized). Of course, in the absence of a colonial overlord, it just becomes stealing the meat from your own soup and serving it to the dogs. But institutions remember, and so corruption becomes the embedded language of the August house.” 

So what happens when the tribal numbers stop making sense? When it increasingly becomes apparent that “our man” will not help us?

“When my competitors are through with(mon-sun)sponsored headlines, paid opinion polls & fake news they are welcome to the real contest based on real mwananchi issues SGR, roads, connecting people to electricity, equipping our hospital &Tivets and matters water. Nawangojea huko.” 

The narrative changes.

“Siasa ya 2022 imengoa nanga (…) hii siasa si ya monarchy ukiamka asubuhi enda kwa huyu, jioni kwa huyu, kesho kwa huyu – hapana. Hata sisi maskini tutazaa kiongozi wetu maskini 2022 William Samoei arap Ruto” 

Mohammed Ali

It’s impossible to ignore that sanitizing effect that the defection of Mohammed Ali has on William Ruto’s character. How can you claim that a person is corrupt if the very person who was voted into government to fight corruption has aligned themselves with them? Buildings are destroyed, commissions are called, rumours are started, reports are written, life moves on – we forget about corruption.

Instead we focus on kiongozi wetu maskini.

Wetu.

The new narrative is the same old narrative. Just the objects that hold space of fearing the “other” have been changed. We begin to see battle lines drawn along the story of the people versus the empire.

“As three generations of firstborn sons, our childhoods couldn’t have been more different. One lived through the early years of colonialism. The next through the Emergency years. I lived through the austerity years of Nyayoism, in the dying embers of the political revolution that begun in the early 80s. Did that define our chosen crafts? From a health officer to a teacher to a writer?” 

It’s worth understanding why these narratives are sticky. One theory states that the independence struggle, while won, took its toll on the country. The only hope left on the other side was catching up with an ever-moving world. In this sense the goalposts shifted from self-determination to gathering resource (I imagine because it became more apparent that resource was the key to this self determination). It is from here single career stories were birthed (be a lawyer doctor engineer or embarrassment to the family). This kind of thinking thrived strongest in the Moi error where following a template and keeping your head down was a surefire way to success. But time passed and we are looking for different definitions of freedom, beyond the pursuit of capital to sustain a life that hadn’t been chosen. Increasingly people are looking for agency over their decisions and looking to where this agency will take (would have taken) them. And the gaps in infrastructure are becoming more apparent.

And the people are getting impatient (Africa is rising, why are we being left behind please?)

Juxtapose this emotion onto the landscape with dwindling tribal numbers and the stage is set for the class to thrive as a key driving story.

And it’s not that hard a story to sell. Kenyatta the first’s government systematically grabbed and redistributed resources amidst the political elite. Every government that has come after has participated, to some degree at least, in this tradition of creating wealth for the elite. And this wealth never translates into proper economic growth because it is not created with a plan or structure but rather through pilfering public funds and redirecting public resources.

So in this way, the Kenyan populace remains vulnerable to the “working president” as a narrative. Change looks like having a president who did not come from legacy and has no ties to empire to the Kenyan people because this is something we have no experience of.

Elections, however, are in 2022 and this is only 2018 – a lot can happen in 4 years. And it is impossible to say the age of political patronage is over. But it might be worth pointing out that it will not be enough to get by on “my people” alone moving forward. Already loud declarations are being made about holding the value of labour over identity so much so that the president had to say that he will not protect his brother if found guilty (he said he will, whether he will well…)

So how can the current landscape be used to the advantage of the people?

First, as already explained the narrative is strong because it is true. Kenya is long overdue a leader that is not part of empire (that leader is not the guy who stole land from a primary school or sold the country’s grain). Look around and find ways to support the leaders you think are actually working.

Second, use the narrative and circumstances to create pressure for the people currently in power. Remind them that the tribal numbers won’t help them next time and that it is the current scorecard that matters. Keep track of the things you and members of the community need done and present them to the people who need to get them done (you can email, tweet or whatever). Make sure your issues are heard – then watch for who is listening. If the battle is for who is listening to the people – then speak your truth.